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The Milindapañha

Milindapañha, "the questions of king Menander": a sacred text of ancient Buddhism, in which a monk named Nagasena answers the questions of an Indo-Greek king.

Coin of Menander I
Coin of Menander I
This coin shows the second-century BCE Indo-Greek king Menander of Taxila, the capital of the western Punjab and Gandara. Menander converted to Buddhism, an act that made lasting impression. More than a century later, at the beginning of the common era, an anonymous author composed a book called Milindapañha, "the questions of king Menander". About 250 questions are answered by the revered monk Nagasena. The Milindapañha has seven sections:

  1. Background history
  2. Questions on distinguishing characteristics
  3. Questions for the cutting off of perplexity
  4. Questions on dilemmas
  5. A question solved by inference
  6. Special qualities of asceticism
  7. Questions on talk of similes

It is interesting to note that several questions are entirely Greek in nature.

2.1.14: Characteristic of wisdom

The king asked: "Venerable Nagasena, what is the distinguishing characteristic of wisdom?" 
     "Previously, your majesty, I said 'severing is the distinguishing characteristic of wisdom', and now furthermore illuminating is the distinguishing characteristic of wisdom." 
     "How, venerable sir, is illuminating the distinguishing characteristic of wisdom?" 
     "Wisdom arising, your majesty, dispels the darkness of ignorance, produces the illumination of insight, brings forth the light of knowledge, and makes manifest the noble truths; and further, the spiritual practitioner sees with complete understanding impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and corelessness." 
     "Give me an analogy." 
     "Just as, your majesty, a person might bring a lamp into a dark house, and with the lamp lit dispels the darkness, produces illumination, shows the light, and makes manifest forms, so too, your majesty, wisdom arising dispels the darkness of ignorance, produces the illumination of insight, brings forth the light of knowledge, and makes manifest the noble truths; and further, the spiritual practitioner sees with complete understanding impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and corelessness." 
     "You are clever, venerable Nagasena."

2.3.12: Characteristic of consciousness

The king asked: "Venerable Nagasena, what is the distinguishing characteristic of consciousness?"
     "The distinguishing characteristic of consciousness, your majesty, is cognizing." 
     "Give me an analogy." 
     "Just as, your majesty, a city-superintendent sitting at the crossroads in the middle of the city could see a person coming from the eastern direction, could see a person coming from the southern direction, could see a person coming from the western direction, and could see a person coming from the northern direction, then indeed, your majesty, does a person cognize with consciousness a form he sees with the eye, cognize with consciousness a sound he hears with the ear, cognize with consciousness a scent he smells with the nose, cognize with consciousness a taste he savors with the tongue, cognize with consciousness a touch he feels with the body, and cognize with consciousness a mental state he cognizes with the mind. Indeed thus, your majesty, the distinguishing characteristic of consciousness is cognizing." 
     "You are clever, venerable Nagasena."

3.7.8: Doing evil knowingly and unknowingly

The king asked: "Venerable Nagasena, for whom is the greater demerit, one who knowingly does evil, or one who does evil unknowingly?" 
     The elder replied: "Indeed, your majesty, for him who does evil not knowing is the greater demerit." 
     "In that case, venerable Nagasena, would we doubly punish one who is our prince or king's chief minister who not knowing does evil?" 
     "What do you think, your majesty, who would get burned more, one who knowing picks up a hot iron ball, ablaze and glowing, or one who not knowing picks it up?" 
     "Indeed, venerable sir, he who not knowing picks it up would get burned more." 
     "Indeed, your majesty, in the same way the greater demerit is for him who does evil not knowing." 
     "You are clever, venerable Nagasena."

PS

I made this page some ten years ago and do not remember which translation I have used. If anyone knows who ought to have been credited, please drop me a line.

This page was created in 2004; last modified on 21 July 2014.